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Construction + Tech + Covid-19 = ?

25 September 2020

The Covid pandemic has been the catalyst for a fundamental pivot in the way we deliver construction projects says civil engineer George Smithies. So what might the construction industry look like in the future?

Construction + Tech + Covid-19 = ?
How does the construction industry 'build back better' for everyone?

In the last 6 months, every aspect of our lives has been transformed by Covid-19. The crisis is accelerating the rate of change and the nature of that change throughout the built environment. We are seeing the forces of technology and the virus combining. There are so many facets to this, but I am going to attempt to focus on one of the most visible aspects of our industry: construction sites. And how as an industry we can set out a path toward 'building back better for everyone'.

Adopting innovative systems

We need to use the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of digital and innovative systems, to improve; safety, physical health, mental well-being, quality, cost, programme, community engagement and reduce CO2. Improvements in these areas, will only be achieved by empowering and enabling people to change the way they live and work. These are the key ingredients of a successful recovery and the long-term.

Within 10 years I believe office workers won't have offices and construction sites won’t have traditional site offices either. They will have high quality welfare facilities and digitally enabled collaboration spaces. They will also be far more diverse places to work. Civil engineers will probably spend more time reviewing inputs for a no code platform than a BIM model. They definitely won’t be doing paperwork.

Restructuring the eco-system

The combination of technology and the coronavirus is forcing us to reconsider the entire construction process eco-system, the relationship between the different parts and what good looks like. If we are to successfully respond, we need a systems-based approach that obliterates silos and traditional ways of working – redefine what we require from our infrastructure.

We need to adopt digital tools and insert IOT devices at key points on a physical asset during the construction process and operations phase. When we do this, design teams will no longer design assets with just the completed structure mind or the end user. We will have to contend with real-time data from the site team during construction, definitely not lagging indicators like NCR or RFI’s. Individual elements of the build will no longer be manufactured in isolation of each other or without real-time input from the assembly team in a different location. We only need to look at car industry to see the impact of real-time data on the entire value chain from; assembly to end user to ownership.

Change the 'what, where, how'

Some traditional roles on construction projects will be replaced by software platforms and new roles will emerge. The traditional hierarchy and allocation of responsibilities and risk will also be very different. The roles of consultant organisations, principle contractors and sub-contractors will change. New types of organisation will emerge. They will be technology enabled and vertically integrated. They will likely embrace risk and value in ways we think are ridiculous today. The virus has shown us that it’s possible to work together and collaborate effectively and not be in the same place. This will have significant impact on not only costs and project resourcing going forward. It is also going to change; where, what and how we build.

Society is ever changing and evolving. Right now there is an opportunity to accelerate progress and deliver better outcomes for the communities we live and work in. Construction sites are major employers and source of economic activity throughout the UK and across the world. Covid-19 is forcing us to reconsider some very basic assumptions about our work life balance, communities, cities and economic infrastructure, and the way we organise to deliver social value.

From what the government has announced so far about recovering from this crisis, the civil engineering profession is going to be critical to the economic recovery. I believe the government is doing its bit on the demand side. On the supply side the adoption of digital tools, new ways of working and the creation of lots of high-quality jobs needs to be the industries commitment and our legacy.

  • George Smithies CEng MICE, Chartered Civil Engineer at Chartered Civil Engineer